Max Payne 3: When nothing remains

I’ve just started playing Max Payne 3. Some initial reflections follow.

Max has been drowning in pain ever since we first got to know him. He lost his wife and child to a murderous drug syndicate in the first game, spiraled downwards even further in the sequel, and has put up camp at rock bottom in the third. The aging ex-cop is no longer going through a crisis – he has resigned to the now chronic torment, and no longer carries any hope to ever get out of his private hell. What he lost he lost forever, and to him that makes him a loser.

Alcohol mixed with pain killers might not take the edge of the pain, but it makes it fuzzier, vaguer. Drinking himself to sleep, unconsciousness comes as a welcome gift. That kind of self destructiveness is a sure sign of a man that wants to destroy the little that is left of him. Max doesn’t care to live any more.

Max Payne 3 portrays this through first person voice-overs, just like in the previous games’ film noir pastiche, but this time he expresses a hatred against himself rather than at some enemy. Still the protagonist, he is now also the antagonist – it is himself and his demons that he must defeat if he is ever to overcome the trials that have been thrown his way as a gun for hire.

Max’s state is also shown through post processing effects. Short moments of seeing double or triple, and distorted video effects, makes you feel his sickness. Sometimes it’s almost like a feverish dream. Max is deeply, deeply messed up, and I feel for him. I want him to find peace, or at least for him to be ok.

The Designer’s Dictionary: Cool

The Designer’s Dictionary is a new series of blog posts looking into different aspects of game design, each time focusing on one word. 

One of my many favorite movies is Pulp Fiction. It’s got good story, great characters, fearless structure and a pitch perfect Tarantino cool. Unfortunately none of his other movies seem to fuse that specific brand of coolness with interesting characters quite as well as Pulp Fiction, however entertaining they might be. His latest movies appear too self aware, like their style is padding rather than an inherent quality.

The Tarantino cool is found somewhere between characters, dialog and the violence, and cinema as a whole would be less without it. It’s amoral, but its just so good that we forgive it. We only get a slice of it once or twice every decade, so whenever it comes our way we’re just happy to get a taste.

But imagine if most of Hollywood was defined by it. What if the majority of movies were – more than anything – striving to be cool? The whiff of excitement and freshness would quickly turn into a stale and putrid stench. Tarantino, a huge film nerd, really makes movies about movies, celebrations of film genres. His movies are morally empty, defined by style over substance. A movie industry plagued by Tarantino wannabes would be a terrible thing.

Unfortunately the games industry is to a large degree just that. One of the most common words in game design discussions, brainstorming sessions, PR events and perhaps even games journalism is “cool”. 

Good writers and movie directors understand that the experiences they craft require some level of substance and cannot simply be a series of cool events. They know that their works require careful pacing between the fast and the slow, between the highs and the lows, between tension and release. That the audience must be able to not only believe in the characters but also identify with them and their struggles. They get how important it is that the plot grabs hold of the audience, allowing them to invest emotionally in the outcome.

It needs to be about something. Something people care about.

Here’s what I think. I believe “cool” is a crutch for the untalented, the lazy and the immature.

If you happen to not have what it takes to do something good, making it cool is still accepted as a substitute. The bar is still set that low, if only because there are too few trying to push it higher.

For those that do have the chops but not the will, going down that route is always an easy way out. Proper design, proper writing is very difficult indeed, so why not make it easy for yourself? Well, you should have some pride in your work and respect for the art.

For kids, cool could be enough. I guess it’s often more than enough, looking back at my own childhood. But the majority of our audience are grownups now, so we better grow up too. Sure, adults like spectacle as well – but only momentarily. To hold their attention for a longer period of time, something deeper is necessary.

Let’s stop confirming the public’s poor perception of our craft. Let’s make better games.

A night of DayZ

Very rarely do I get excited over games anymore.

When I was a kid it was a common thing. I heard about some new game and became engrossed in the game’s possibilities, fantasizing what could happen it its world. Reading about games and dreaming about the amazing experiences they might hold was something I enjoyed greatly, often more so than playing them.

But I’m old now (well…), and cynical (yeah), and I know the gears and pistons that make the monster move, and I know that its beating heart is really a steam engine. Partially because I’ve been a gamer for a long time, and partially because I’m a game designer, the man behind the curtain has become very difficult not to pay attention to.

Then DayZ comes along.

Day Z is a persistent sandbox zombie first person shooter with PvP and (don’t forget to breath) limited resources in a vast environment based on ARMA II.

For non-geeks it translates to a world where the players are the hunted, doing whatever is necessary to survive. Try not to be killed by the hordes of zombies that roam the cities, the villages and sometimes the woods. Scavenge the deserted homes for scarce resources like food, water, ammunition and perhaps bandages, or turn on your fellow players and murder them for their loot. If you get killed, that’s it – your character and everything he’s collected is gone. You start over with a lousy gun and a few cans of beans.

It’s a rare type of game. While the gears might still be visible, there is no man pulling strings behind some transparent curtain. Instead it’s a world run by rules of survival, populated by independent agents, where the story and intensity comes from how the players choose to deal with those agents (and each other) in order to survive. In other words, it’s a game that can tell great player stories, and I believe that player stories are almost always more powerful than scripted stories. Somehow they feel more real.

I’m not exaggerating that I got very excited about playing it. Before I got my hands on it I watched more YouTube videos of people playing the game than I care to admit.

Last night I played the game with a couple of friends from work. Our adventure started out brilliantly, but ended in tragedy.

There were four of us. We had finally left the coastal area to escape the mayhem of bandits slaying newcomers, and started our journey north. We were becoming desperate after resources – ammo, water, those kind of things, and identified a shop on the map. Shops usually have lots of useful stuff left behind, so we decided to head to the village that we so far only knew from the map.

We travelled rather carefully, trying to stay behind tree lines when possible, darting from bush to bush whenever we were left naked by open fields. We ran and ran until we finally found the village on a small hill. Scouting the area from a distance, we found it empty of bandits but full of zombies – but we were well armed with courage (and guns), and counting our clips we agreed we had enough ammo to take them.

The first shot was the signal, and before the first zombie hit the ground all our guns were firing unto their targets. The four of us made a line across the road leading into the village, and as the undead came running they faced a relentless wall of death.

The fields and roads and gardens became littered with bodies. Only the zombies on the other end of the village were still alive, oblivious of the carnage that had just been inflicted upon their neighbours. While the place was not yet safe, I had run out of ammo and felt I needed to find that shop, hoping to find bullets. Quite foolishly I hastened ahead of the others, and unfortunately attracted unwanted attention that my friends had to deal with.

But where was the shop? A house held a handful of rounds, but there seemed to be no shop.

Suddenly we were surrounded by a large group of zombies no one had any idea where they came from. Our guns were running hot once again, but the few clips I had found were soon gone and I had to retreat back into the house.

Was it safe there? A few seconds passed before the distorted shape of a zombie walked through the door frame. Slowly shuffling towards me, I made sure the kitchen table was between us. He advanced around the table, which opened the path to the exit. As I sprinted out of the kitchen, I met a friend in the hallway. To my great relief, he took care of the zombie.

The outside was utter chaos. People were hurt, people were running low on ammo, and all of a sudden one of my coworkers fell to the ground, unconscious. Friendly fire. We were not losing control – it had been lost minutes ago and we were now fighting a losing battle. Zombies continued to pour into the garden where we fought and bled. Having no ammunition, I tried to make myself useful by helping my downed coworker.

Slowly the number of living zombies decreased and we started to gain hope. I took the pulse of my dying coworker and realized it was still strong. Hoping that he might wake up I gave him a blood transfusion and some morphine, but he remained unconscious. Most of the zombies were now gone, and we decided to try to get the hell out of there while we had the chance. Dragging our friend with us, we slowly moved away from the houses towards an open field.

The village had been a terrible idea. We were hurt, I was still out of ammo and the fate of our incapacitated buddy seemed grim.

During the slow walk to, well, anywhere else than where our asses had been so thoroughly kicked, we had the occasional zombie attack – but we were now back in control. Except for the coma patient we hauled through the grass, that is.

But we were lost. Not knowing where to go, we kept walking. Minutes went by. Minutes became an hour, and we were still lost and our friend was not doing any better. We couldn’t just leave him there, so we started considering our options. Perhaps we could try getting him to a city. But they’re very dangerous, and even more so if you’re hauling someone with you – and we had been on a mission to leave the cities and the coast behind us. Maybe we could leave him there in the grass, only temporarily, to search for medicine.

Or perhaps we should end his misery with a shot to the head.

The last option started to sound like a good idea as time went by. The problem with a mercy killing is that DayZ has a system where you lose “humanity” when killing players, ultimately turning you into a bandit whom always suffers a risk of getting shot on sight by other players.

Then a large field opened up before us, and in the middle of the field was a destroyed helicopter. With a fully functioning minigun. We couldn’t fly the helicopter, but we considered ideas like getting hordes of zombies to follow us, only to lead them to the helicopter and slay them all with the minigun. Then, with the mindset of game designers, we asked ourselves if killing a player with the minigun instead of our own weapons would leave our humanity unaffected.

The comatose was placed in the grass in front of the helicopter, and one of the survivors climbed inside and manned the minigun. We contemplated the situation for a moment, but there was nothing more to say. It was time.

The trigger was pulled, and then it was all over. The remaining blood seeped out of the perforated body as the smoke cleared from the barrels. Perhaps 600 rounds of high caliber ammunition was overkill, but I guess the gunner wanted to be sure.

We took the most important things from the carcass of our friend, and moved towards the forest. He was dead, but we were alive.


Never forgetting the storms

There are some childhood memories that I’ve thought about quite a bit recently – vivid memories of the storms at the family summer house. I remember that the worst of the storms almost always seemed to keep away from the island we lived on, hammering the lake but sparing us as if there was some hidden barrier protecting our home.

I enjoyed sitting on my own down by the rocks at the shore, watching the lightning over the lake. It poured down, but the rainwear kept me dry and allowed me to just sit there and take it all in. It was powerful and majestic. The warm rain against my face, the wind blowing the treetops, the roaring sea beneath my feet. The air was alive with a million water drops making the sea boil. Lightning cut lines between a grey sky and the horizon, and thunder danced between the islands. It was exciting, but at the same time calming.

I was alone on that rock, but nature itself opened up and embraced me. It was all around me, and it said “This is what I am. I touch everything, and I am the touched. I am the raging sea and the beating heart. And you are part of me.

That was many years ago. If it would rain right now I doubt I’d even notice it. Living in a city is much like being immersed in a cocoon. Protected. Sanitized. Air conditioned. Planned. Life here is homogeneous.

Each and every one of us have the wonderful opportunity of being alive and sentient, and we get to experience this on a fantastic planet. It’s got sunshine and pitch black nights, heat and cold, breezes and storms, rain and hail. Trees reaching for the skies and mountains large as gods. And yet we choose to live in cities filled with asphalt and malls and traffic lights and 7-11s.

Don’t get me wrong – I love the city and everything it promises. But the cityscape has been my horizon for many years, and I think I’m getting ready to face the elements again.

Send your money to Tim Schafer!

It took me long enough, but now I’ve finally donated to Double Fine’s new adventure game through Kickstarter. Sure, the very successful crowd funding of this project will likely change things in the games industry, but what I’m the most excited by is the prospect of a new adventure game by Tim Schafer! I started my path as a PC gamer with adventure games, and the best ones usually had Tim Schafer as a designer and writer, so I’m just thrilled that he and Ron Gilbert is making a new one after all these years.

Day of the Tentacle. Grim Fandango. Wonderful and funny games, and some of my favorite gaming experiences of all time. They had so much character, so much wit.

Come on – it’s still possible to donate for a few more days, and each dollar they get is a dollar closer to the budget of Grim Fandango!

The stuff you missed

It happens all the time. Something new and cool is released, but you have no idea. Or you simply ignore the whooshing sound it makes as it passes by just slightly outside your area of interest. By definition it’s impossible to know how many cool things you miss out on, but for me there’s probably a great deal.

And sometimes that’s just great, because you can find or rediscover it on a rainy weekend day and realize that it’s pretty damn good. Having lost that new-car smell, any exaggerated expectations have left your body like that tiresome cold you no longer remember.

Last weekend was a weekend like that, rediscovering both a game and a movie. I bought Stacking from Double Fine (oh, and don’t forget to donate to their Kickstarter page), and my girlfriend brought the movie Lars and the Real Girl. Strangely enough they share a theme I didn’t realize until just now as I write this post. They’re both about dolls.

I’m a handful of hours into Stacking, and it’s been a nice experience so far. The art direction is full of charm and is perfectly married to the gameplay. It’s a puzzle game, where each puzzle is solved by the unique abilities of the matryoshka dolls you control. Yes, you play as traditional Russian wooden dolls, and just like a real matryoshka you can stack the smaller dolls in the bigger ones. You often walk around with 5-6 dolls, each encapsulated by the next.

The challenge is finding what doll can solve the problem at hand, and occasionally it requires you to be the right size. Sometimes you must be tiny, controlling only the original little doll on his quest to save his family, and sometimes you need to be huge, pushing around someone enormous like the female opera singer. And yes, the fat lady sings, and when she does her high pitched voice shatters all nearby glass. The different abilities of the dolls (and each only has one) are not always there for gameplay purposes. Quite often they’re just funny, quirky or part of revealing the doll’s character.

The biggest criticism I can give Stacking is that the presentation of the puzzles quickly becomes formulaic. The game would have gained a lot from greater variation in how the player progresses between areas and challenges.

Next to my desk I have a Star Wars matryoshka doll, bought in Moscow during my time at Funcom. Funcom’s geek culture had a certain love for stuff like that.

Lars and the Real Girl was a movie I had barely heard the name of. I had fairly low expectations as we hit play, but I was pleasantly surprised as a sweet drama unfolded. Despite a bizarre premise it never felt forced. Lars, a lonely man with a social phobia so intense he doesn’t function around women, completely loses the plot and gets a Real Doll as his girlfriend. His issues run so deep that he manages to convince himself it’s a real woman, and builds his life around their relationship. Solid writing and good acting (Ryan Gosling as Lars) makes it believable.

Lars deep commitment and very real love to the doll suggests that perhaps love is not something that happens between two people – perhaps love is always one-way streets that sometimes happen to lead to the same place. Maybe we’re just projecting love unto others, hoping that they will project back in return. Maybe every man is an island, but an island with a lighthouse. I’m sure that’s not the message the director intended, but it’s not an idea I find distressing despite its bleakness.

Oh well. Not bad for a dull weekend.

Through the noise #6

My gold digging equipment is left behind in some diamond filled crevice. Putting my ears to the tracks, I hear a tap dancing hobo from miles away. He’s tapping morse code, spelling out hypertext transfer protocol adresses. Beep for beeep, I write them down. This is the real treasure. 

Todd Howard’s DICE keynote
Todd Howard, the creative director of Skyrim, gives an interesting and revealing talk about how Bethesda creates their games. Definately worth your time if you’re into game development.

Top five regrets of the dying
Well,we’re all going to die. Here are the top five regrets expressed by the dying, according to someone that used to work in palliative care. Let’s not make this list ours when the time comes, OK?

The end of evil?
The word “evil” is deeply problematic, expressing nothing but ignorance of the real processes and desires that drive people. Whenever someone with power speaks of evil, reach for your gun! He’s either lying or he’s a fool. This article discusses why neuroscientists claim there is no such thing as evil, and I wish that idea could claim some ground in the public debate.

If you’re ever looking for protection for your smartphone, tablet or laptop, check out Gelaskins. They make durable skins that look amazing. I bought The Great Wave (Katsushika Hokusai) for my netbook and iPad Touch a long time ago, and now I’m considering getting it for my HTC Desire Z.

51 words for snow

The eskimos are said to have fifty different words for snow. It’s not remotely true of course, but so goes the modern legend that we love to retell. I guess it’s a romanticization of the relationship to a natural phenomenon (and of the idea of indigenous people in tune with nature), probably saying less about eskimos and more about the people repeating the saying. We want to be closer to nature.

I think it’s often true that the modern human, with her apartment complexes and information feeds, secretly longs after the woods, mountains and rivers she has organized away. She desires a deeper sense of snow.

Perhaps those of us up here in the northern part of the world ought to have a slimmer version of the same myth, with our long winters. Thirty words for snow? Twenty? I probably have no more than a handful, but I sure know snow.

Truth to be told, I am sick of winter. See, we Swedes have a short summer. Spring comes late, and autumn always seem to arrive too early. Then we face many months of snow, cold and darkness. We count the day as blessed whenever our pale skin gets some sunshine, and we huddle in our brightly lit homes to keep the cold and the dark away. This winter I started longing for spring already in october.

Funny, then, that I enjoy the winterous landscapes of Skyrim so much.

Perhaps it is the contrast between sitting comfortably in a warm and bright apartment while exploring a steep mountain in an intense snow storm. Perhaps it is all the mysteries awaiting the curious who chooses to leave the beaten path. Or maybe it is the diversity of environments – the many variations on the theme “snow”.

Most of Skyrim is clad in snow, and yet it never ceases to surprise you. Moving from area to area, you encounter one unique snow landscape after another. The intense snow storm that seems to drown the world in white, the strong cold wind that blows newly-fallen snow from nearby ridges, the green grove that receives the year’s first snow, the…

Even as a swede, I have no words for many of the types of snow Bethesda has captured. That is not a reflection on my vocabulary but a celebration of Bethesda’s world design. If the saying about the eskimos had not been false, it’s easy to believe that even they would run out of words. I don’t know what strange country Skyrim’s art director comes from, but wherever that might be his people must speak a language with 51 words for snow.

It’s not only the variation. Each type of snow filled environment has been carefully crafted, giving you a rare sense of climate and weather. It genuinely surprised me how cold I felt when I climbed the game’s first mountain. Not only do the areas immerse you, but they evoke specific feelings. You will feel cold, but also melancholic, hopeful, filled with awe and so on. Couple the strong artistic vision of each landscape with the variation of environments and you experience an ever-changing emotional state as you walk the land.

With my dislike of winter, I would not have expected Skyrim’s defining feature – the one that made me fall in love with the game – to be snow.

Playing Skyrim

The move to Sweden was an ordeal. It should have been fairly easy – Norway is a neighbouring country, and I am Swedish after all (although with 50% Finnish sisu). But the completely insane housing market in Sweden (good luck trying to find an apartment without renting one from someone already renting it or paying a bribe of half a year’s salary), and the fact that we were defrauded gave us more than one headache.

Yes – defrauded. We we’re royally screwed on an apartment by a sociopath. It’s long story that I might tell another time, but for now I’ll just conclude that the parasite is doing time.

Anyway. Games.

The ordeal meant that most of our stuff waited for us in a warehouse, in the twilight zone between the previous apartment and the next one, and we had to wait until early December until we got it back. That translates to a lot of time without my PC or my Xbox 360. My already intimidating games backlog continued to grow and grow.

But it’s been well over a month since my hardware returned, so the backlog should surely have been reduced by now. Right?

Well, Skyrim happened. It’s not like I don’t want to finish Deux Ex: Human Revolution, it’s not like I don’t want to try out Battlefield 3, but…

I was never that impressed by Oblivion. And Skyrim is not a perfect game. But by god was it a long time since a game captured my imagination like this. When I’ve played it, I keep thinking about it even when I should be sound asleep. I think about the things I might want to try, and potential scenarios that might unfold the next time I enter its captivating world.

The game lives in the mind, and it was years since that happened to me. I remember having games stay with me during downtime when I was a kid, but these days it’s very rare… and I treasure whenever it happens.